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December 17, 2020

Loading and Firing a Flintlock Rifle for Dummies

By Brian Beck

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So, you woke up Christmas morning and jolly old St. Nick left you a flintlock firearm under the tree–or at least that's what you told your wife. Regardless of whether the magical fat man with flying reindeer brought it to you or not, you decide–with all this time spent at home–to finally build that kit you've always dreamed of. Perhaps you even bought one for yourself as a Christmas treat at one of our recent auctions. But now what?

Brian from Rock Island Auction Company with his flintlock rifle.

Before venturing any further, be sure to check out some of the pervious blogs pertaining to the subject of flintlocks and old styles of weapons. For more information on muzzleloaders and black powder firearms, explore some of other articles written on the subject!

A c. 1790-1800 Kentucky rifle attributed to master gunmaker John (Johannes) Bonewitz of Womelsdorf, Pennsylvania.

Getting Started with Your New Flintlock

Now that you’ve taken the time to read up on flintlocks, you're probably wondering how to get it loaded up and fired. If this will be your first foray to the dark side of black powder, then this is probably as good a time as any to warn you–as many warned me before I completed my first rifle–the smell of freshly fired black powder is EXTREMELY addicting.

Explore some past flintlock firearms sold at Rock Island Auction Company in this edition of Guncovered.

So, if you're sitting there reading this before you load up and shoot for the first time, just know, that no matter what black powder firearm you've just acquired, it almost certainly won't be your last! Lucky for you, here at Rock Island Auction Company we keep a steady stream of flintlocks and other black powder arms flowing to you through our three varieties of auctions. If you're feeling a void that needs to be filled with a new rock lock or snap cap, we've got you covered.

Safely Handling a Flintlock Rifle

First things first. Just like any other firearm, before you handle a flintlock, you want to make sure it’s not already loaded. The easiest way to do this is to put the ramrod or other similar rod down the barrel and make sure it can go in the full length of the barrel. If the rod stops short of the full length then the gun is either loaded or there is something else down in the breech, either of which is going to cause problems.

Treat every rifle like it is loaded, no matter how old it is.

If you find that the gun is loaded or something is jammed down in the breech, that problem needs to be solved before going any further. It may seem ridiculous to check if a gun you’ve just bought brand new, or that you’ve just finished building is loaded, but it’s a good habit to get into. It’s always possible that you could be out hunting or shooting and put the gun away still loaded by accident. You don’t want to end up loading it for a second time when you get it back out to shoot again!

Brushing out the pan on a flintlock rifle.

Once you’ve confirmed that the gun isn’t loaded, give it a quick once over. This involves making sure everything is secure and the lock is functioning properly. I like to run a pick into the vent hole to make sure it isn’t blocked, brush out the pan to make sure it’s clear of debris, and make sure the frizzen is as clean and dry as possible.

Ian from Forgotten Weapons talks about the Hall rifle and its historic significance. 


For the next step, I would highly recommend having an adjustable powder measure and a powder horn or flask. These things make loading much more precise and much less messy. No one likes wasting powder by spilling it all over the place.

These two contemporary French & Indian War themed powder horns sold in 2020 for $1,035.

For my rifle I have settled on a load for hunting and general shooting that is 70gr. of FFFg black powder. For flintlocks especially, you should use black powder only, not any of the modern substitutes. If you have no clue what powder measurement you need for your specific gun don’t worry, it’s actually fairly simple, at least to get started.

For rifles and muskets it is normally recommended to start with the same number of grains of powder as the caliber of the gun. For example, with my .50 caliber rifle, I started with 50gr. of powder, before working my way up to 70. For pistols it is generally recommended to use a little less than half the number of grains as the caliber of the pistol. An example being, loading a .45 caliber pistol with 15-20 grains of powder. Keep in mind that these numbers are just a starting point to get you shooting.

Measuring and pouring powder down a flintlock rifle.

Most guns can safely handle quite a bit more powder than this and it will take some range time to find out how many grains your specific gun prefers for accuracy. I set my powder measure to “70” and then fill it to the top from my large powder horn (which is my “main charge” horn), or the FFFg. You then dump the powder out of your full powder measure down the barrel.


The next step is your patch. Like most other things involved with muzzleloading guns, there are all sorts of choices for patch, and much like the powder charge, you will have to work with it to figure out what your specific gun likes to shoot. The patches I have been using so far have been precut store bought pillow ticking of .015 thickness. They seem to have given me acceptable accuracy so far so I haven’t tried anything else. As you get deeper into this hobby you will start to learn to read your patches, which is a talent somewhat akin to reading tea leaves. I’m no expert on this so I won’t pretend that I am, but I’ll just say that eventually you will be able to look at a shot patch and know what needs to be changed from how frayed or burnt it is.

Ian from Forgotten Weapons talks about this incredibly interesting 18th century flintlock grenade launcher that sold at Rock Island Auction Company for $18,400 in 2020.

The patches need to be lubed, and there are about as many options for that as there are for patches. The simplest option is good old fashioned spit. If you decide to go with this route, I would recommend putting the patch in your mouth before you start measuring your powder so that it is ready when you need it. Another often recommended lube for patches, especially for hunting when you don’t want a spit soaked patch sitting on your powder for hours at a time, is mink oil. I have tried both mink oil and spit at this point, and both seem to give me similar results. You will just have to try some different patch and lube combinations to see what works best for you.

Loading Your Flintlock Rifle

I then take the lubed patch and set it as evenly as possible on the muzzle of the gun and then set the ball on top of that and push it lightly into the bore to hold the patch in place. With rifles like mine, this patch and ball combination should be a fairly tight fit. For this I made a short starter out a leftover chunk of ramrod and deer antler, and a spent .308 casing. They’re easy to make but also available for purchase through many retail outlets if you’re not feeling like channeling your inner Martha Stewart and getting crafty.

Loading a flintlock rifle.

Place the short starter rod on top of the ball and give the starter a few good whacks with my hand to get the ball started down the bore as shown above. Once the ball is started you can grab your ramrod and push the ball the rest of the way down the barrel until you feel the patch and ball seat on top of the powder.

Once it is seated, your main charge ready and you can slide your ramrod back into the pipes so you don’t lose it. The gun is now loaded and should be treated as such, but you aren’t quite ready to fire yet.


Next, you need to prime the pan. First you want the lock at “half-cock”, which most of the time will be pulling back the cock until you hear one click. This is a fairly safe position where the gun should not be able to fire even if the pan is full and the frizzen is down, but as with the safety on any other gun you should always treat it as if it doesn’t function.

The first image on the left shows the rifle's lock at rest while the middle picture shows the it being locked in the "half-cock" position. The third picture shows the measured powder being poured on the pan.

For priming the pan on my rifle I use FFFFg powder, but most often you can just use the same powder as you use for the main charge. For my rifle the finer powder seems to give me a quicker more reliable ignition, but this can vary from gun to gun. I keep this powder in a smaller priming horn so that I know which is which, and because not as much priming powder is needed as for the main charge.

Most of us know that Collier revolvers played muse to Samuel Colt, but how many of us are familiar with his repeating magazine frizzen primer?

This step will also take a bit of learning as you really want to use as little powder as possible in the pan while still getting a reliable ignition every time you pull the trigger. Part of this is to avoid unnecessary powder waste and part of it is to minimize the amount of flash in your face. Even the most veteran flintlock shooters will tell you they still flinch from time to time when they fire, and one way to help minimize that flinch is to minimize the flash. The less powder, the less flash.

Powder in the pan on a flintlock rifle.

My rifle doesn’t need much in the pan to fire reliably, but you will figure out what yours needs as you go. Once you’ve primed the pan you can flip the frizzen down to cover it up. With the gun loaded now the safest way to keep it is at half cock.

Firing Your Flintlock Rifle

If you're ready to fire you just need to pull the cock to full cock position and take aim. That is all it takes to load and fire your newly acquired flintlock firearm.

Lot 1020 in the December 29 Online Auction is this impressive set of two contemporary Tower marked flintlock muskets.

As I said earlier, there may be a lot more shooting and experimentation involved in coming up with an accurate and functional load for your specific gun, or you may get lucky and find an accurate load on your first try (don't count on that!). Hopefully all of this has made a seemingly daunting and complicated task into a simple one. Just always remember, powder, patch, and then ball.

In April 2020, Rock Island Auction Company sold these gorgeous gold mounted Boutet Officer's Flintlock Pistols that sold for $575,000.

If you were hoping for a flintlock for Christmas and all you got was coal, there's no need to worry! Check out our upcoming auctions here at Rock Island Auction Company, I'm sure there will be something to fulfill your flintlock desires! Happy shooting, friends!

Explore some of the exquisite firearms that Rock Island Auction Company has sold in the past.

Rock Island Auction Company will be hosting its last auction of 2020 on December 29, starting at 9:00 A.M. C.T. After that, we are starting the 2021 year strong with our first 2021 Online Auction on January 7, our first 2021 Sporting & Collector Auction on February 2-6, and our first 2021 Premier Auction April 15-18.

For any questions regarding consignment, registration, or other have any other questions, please contact Rock Island Auction Company.

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